After being released from prison, Russell Baze (Christian Bale) returns home to discover that his brother Rodney (Casey Affleck) joined a dangerous crime syndicate while he was away and has since disappeared. With the police search lacking the necessary urgency to find to him, Russell puts his own freedom in jeopardy to find and punish those responsible.

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'70s throwback goes dark and deep.

In Out of the Furnace, a smouldering macho melodrama about last options and revenge from actor-turned-director Scott Cooper (Crazy Heart), heartland America is dying a slow wheezy death and its denizens don’t only know it, but feel every movement of that agony like a twist in the gut.

The setting is a steel town in Pennsylvania circa 2008, an ugly sprawl of rust and dirty sky. It’s a place that bares a strong, can’t-miss-it-if-you-tried resemblance to the burgh in The Deer Hunter (1978), minus the delicately composed compositions, gorgeous colour and the beautiful Orthodox Church. As many have already noted, yes, Cooper’s picture seems something of a cautious homage to Cimino’s film, which, admittedly, sounds like an appalling prospect. Like its Oscar-winning forebear, it is a study in masculine energy under pressure and it counts the cost on the veterans of an unpopular war. Here, it’s Iraq. It’s even got a deer hunt. Though it trades Cimino’s mountainous snow-tipped poetry for sludge and scrubby woods. Cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi shot on 35mm (proudly he shouts in the end titles) in a visual style that’s, if anything, anti-operatic in its commitment to hand-held immediacy and poo-brown, blue-tinged misery.

For all that, Cooper and co-screenwriter Brad Ingelsby have actually delivered a high-tone version of a ‘70s Hicksville B-movie, as opposed to Cimino’s romantic blue-collar mysticism, and so you might say it’s less a homage, and more like affectionate cribbing. At least we can be thankful there’s no equivalent here to Deer Hunter’s ‘This is This’ speech.

Still, Cooper and co. have used a similar dramatic model to Cimino. Thus the cast of characters in Out of the Furnace are a virtual chorus line of macho types, all equally embroiled in a battle between their own private dreams and a value system founded on class and a dead-end culture of payback and social ritual. Reduced to essentials, the story asks, ‘What kind of man do you wanna be, can you be, in this bullshit world?’

That’s a weighty mouthful and it reeks of a kind of maleness that’s stinky with worship, and the director never seems to get a critical distance on it; this is a male-centred world where all relationships exist to disappoint. But at least the plot is lean, and Cooper and Ingelsby make it live with detail.

It’s a ‘brother’s keeper’ yarn, where one sibling is decent and hard working and the other, a war vet, always in trouble, and it reminded me a lot of a Springsteen song called ‘Highway Patrolman’. That was actually the basis for Sean Penn’s directorial debut, The Indian Runner (1991). It was a tough pic but it looks positively happy-go-lucky next to Furnace’s brutal anguish.

Christian Bale is the older sibling here, a steelworker called Russell who has a wise old Uncle, Gerald (Sam Shepard), a dying father, a girlfriend he loves called Lena (Zoe Saldana), as well as few small dreams for the future. His younger brother is Rodney (Casey Affleck), a likable, restless guy with a wiry menace, who, between nursing nightmares borne out of combat, gambles and loses. Russell pays off Rodney’s debts – in secret – to the local low-rent crime boss, Petty (an especially fine Willem Dafoe), who, against type, seems to specialise in offering second chances. Lurking on the rim of this scenario, like a bad drunk waiting for a chance to pounce, is Woody Harrelson’s Harlan DeGroat, a character about as mean as anything I’ve seen since those hillbillies came out of the woods in Deliverance (1972) and demanded poor Ned Beatty to climb over a log, and, um, squeal like a pig.

Harlan is a tattooed backwoods crook kingpin who sucks lollipops, peddles drugs, lives in squalor, and has the kind of comic timing that delivers only tickles of pain. (When his gloating frown cracks a smile, you know it’s time to head for the hills.) He also runs a high-stakes underground bare-knuckles fight competition, and Rodney, seeking cash and an outlet for his I-fought-for-my-country-and-what-do-I-got rage, wants in.

Dafoe’s Petty warns the kid off; Harlan is an ‘inbred’ and a guy not ‘to mess with’, which is kinda redundant since we meet Harlan in the movie’s opening scene where he is attempting to kill his date in a drive-in by force feeding her with some takeout after a petty argument. Turns out Harlan hails from a real place, mountain territory in northern New Jersey named Ramapo, and even the surname is authentic to the region (a fact that apparently, did not amuse the locals, descendants of the Lenape Native Americans, who suffer much crime-related innuendo.)

This is, of course, a set-up destined for heartbreak. Rodney incurs the wrath of Harlan. By the midway point, Cooper and co. have provided personal tragedy – break-up, breakdowns, jail time, ruined hopes – and a body count of largely innocent casualties. If that weren’t enough, the mill is about to close because it’s cheaper for America to get their steel from China.

The last section of the film is dedicated to Bale’s deer hunter and his dogged stalking of his brother’s tormentor. This is not Tarantino’s gleeful, winking sadism, but something deadly earnest. (Indeed, the film’s tone is relentlessly downbeat even in when in high-gear.) It’s also desperately sad (and depressing) because there’s a suggestion that Bale’s decent guy has no choice but to pick up a rifle and kill to preserve a wounded dignity.

Miraculously, Cooper makes this play as more than macho posturing. One of the best things about the film is the way it slowly, carefully reveals that the characters are living in the service of dark, mystifying impulses. They are both more and less than that hack phrase ‘products of their environment’ suggests.

What really sells the film is not the sweaty writing or Cooper’s feel for atmosphere, but the acting, which has that lived-in quality that critics like to call ‘70s. Which is another of saying you believe these people feel like they come from a real place. It’s quite a thrill in way if you can put up with Cooper’s vision, which is blacker than the inside of a cow.